Spectators and re-enactors gathered at Appomattox Court House to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

ON April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee negotiated their famous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of surrender. In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.”

Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans. In fanciful stories of Grant’s returning a ceremonial sword to Lee, or of the United States Army’s saluting its defeated foes at the laying-down-of-arms ceremony, white Americans fashioned a story of prodigal sons returning for a happy family portrait.

civil-war-sumter75-popupGrant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.

To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.

And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.

Meanwhile, Southern soldiers continued to fight as insurgents, terrorizing blacks across the region. One congressman estimated that 50,000 African-Americans were murdered by white Southerners in the first quarter-century after emancipation. “It is a fatal mistake, nay a wicked misery to talk of peace or the institutions of peace,” a federal attorney wrote almost two years after Appomattox. “We are in the very vortex of war.”

Against this insurgency, even President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Reconstruction, continued the state of war for a year after Appomattox. When Johnson tried to end the war in the summer of 1866, Congress seized control of his war powers; from 1867 to 1870, generals in the South regulated state officials and oversaw voter registration, ensuring that freedmen could claim the franchise they had lobbied for. With the guidance of military overseers, new biracial governments transformed the Constitution itself, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The military occupation created pockets of stability and moments of order. Excluded from politics before the war, black men won more than 1,500 offices during Reconstruction. By 1880, 20 percent of black families owned farms.

But the occupation that helped support these gains could not be sustained. Anxious politicians reduced the Army’s size even as they assigned it more tasks. After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.

Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).

Beyond the problem of historical accuracy, separating the war and the military from Reconstruction contributes to an enduring American amnesia about the Army’s role in remaking postwar societies. Many of the nation’s wars have followed the trajectory established at Appomattox: Cheers at the end of fighting are replaced by bafflement at the enduring conflict as the military struggles to fill the defeated government’s role, even as the American public moves on. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the Army undertook bloody campaigns to suppress rebellions and exert control over the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. After World War II, a state of war endured into the 1950s in the occupation of Japan and Germany. And in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military’s work had barely begun when the fighting stopped — and the work continues, in the hands of American-backed locals, today.

While it is tempting to blame the George W. Bush administration for these recent wars without end, the problem lies deep within Americans’ understanding of what wars are. We wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end. But wars are often political efforts to remake international or domestic orders. They create problems of governance that battles alone cannot resolve.

Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South “surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.” In so many wars since, the United States won the battlefield fighting but lost ground afterward.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can learn, as Grant did, the dangers of celebrating too soon. Although a nation has a right to decide what conflicts are worth fighting, it does not have the right to forget its history, and in the process to repeat it.

The Presidential Juggler: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rhetorical Flexibility, and Autofabrication

“You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945, US president 1933-1945) made the above comment to one of his cabinet members on May 15, 1942. Especially the first sentence has often been quoted since, almost to the point of becoming one of the best-known FDR epigrams along with “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”, and “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”. Although FDR said this in a private setting, it has by now – 70 years after his death – become an oft-quoted maxim, e.g. in Warren Kimball’s monograph The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (1991). Indeed, FDR’s self-declared deviousness at juggling the images and impressions he projected has itself become a stock element of his long-standing public image.  That this is largely remembered as a positive attribute is exemplified in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), in which FDR (Bill Murray) is portrayed as a sly genius, covertly playing the media and everybody else.

“I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does,” reminds of the liar paradox (“This sentence is false.”) because Roosevelt is actually compellingly honest about his own dissimulation. “You know” in the full quotation enhances this effect, because it makes the addressee complicit in the performance of enchanting deception.

The New York Times reports Franklin D. Roosevelt's death (New York Times, 13 April 1945)

One of FDR’s key skills was his ability to exude a sense of authenticity. This authenticity was in the first place a rhetorical performance, but for instance his Fireside Chats continue to be experienced as frank and intimate. In the days after they were broadcast the White House would receive unprecedented deluges of letters from Americans who felt personally compelled to continue the conversation with the President.  However, within the display of rhetorical skill and seeming authenticity and frankness, there is a strong message in the “juggler” quote: Roosevelt is “perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths” about his role in World War II. This is something he could not have said a year earlier, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when the United States were not officially engaged yet, and the public opinion still largely opposed intervention in the war overseas. Because it was well-known that the president, unlike most Americans, was keen to intervene in the European war to help Great Britain resist Nazi-Germany, saying that he would lie about the war would have been political suicide.

Admitting to deviousness would have damaged him, especially as a president who had just, unprecedentedly, been re-elected for a third term, a move that was frowned upon widely, by Americans traditionally wary of the corrupting effects of power. But in 1942, when there was a clear and external opponent to deceive, FDR could make such a statement and come across as transparent on the one hand, and immeasurably powerful on the other (immeasurable, because “I never let my right hand know what my left hand does”). This literal impossibility to measure his power expanded its magnitude to the immeasurably vast. Around the same time Roosevelt made the juggler remark, his administration, under Roosevelt’s responsibility and at his discretion, was incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese Americans, without any indication of potential disloyalty to the US.

This double act is characteristic for FDR – he on the one hand publicly and with great success, even into the future, positioned himself as a fascinating and a sympathetic icon, and at the same time decisively exerted the executive power vested in the president. Indeed, through saying he is a juggler (i.e. happy to beguile), he presented himself as frank and charming. He explicitly covered his actions as commander in chief (which in the case of the Japanese internment would later be qualified as war crimes) by a verbal self-presentation as informal and frank. The similarity with his first name is coincidental, although it is a coincidence he was apt to use to his advantage.

I call this double act – obscuring the less comfortable elements of wielding power through the self-presentation as an attractive public icon – autofabrication. Autofabrication is a coinage to complement Stephen Greenblatt’s celebrated term self-fashioning. In Renaissance Self-fashioning Greenblatt discusses the production of selves of exemplary renaissance authors from More to Shakespeare, arguing that they are both products of a particular culture with particular shaping demands on the individual, and also individuals reflecting on those cultural codes through their writing. Greenblatt argues that during and since the sixteenth century ideas of the self as mobile, and the belief that selves can be fashioned by internal and external factors, have acquired immense momentum in the western world. The success of the term, also for fruitful analysis of individuals who lived long after the 16th century, suggests he is right.

However, to understand larger-than-life political leaders such as Roosevelt it is not enough to regard them as products of a culture who simultaneously contribute to the development of their culture. Especially in a democratic setting, a leader like FDR is also a public icon, presumably representing the majority of the electorate – however impossible it is for one individual to actually represent millions of people. At the same time he was commander in chief, the formal embodiment of executive power. Especially in the context of war, this executive power is a life-and-death matter, a harsh fact that often needs to be obscured, for a democratic leader to survive politically. This conscious production of a positive public image, coupled with the necessary elision of visible power-wielding are the constitutive elements of autofabrication, complementary in the case of political leaders to self-fashioning.

Presenting oneself as an attractive icon for a majority of the electorate is a tour-de-force in itself. One of the key things Roosevelt did to pull this off, was to position himself as an extremely malleable vessel, which could easily be adopted as part of a range of narratives. Many of his best remembered speeches have an attractive emptiness. They are rhetorically strong, and easy to identify with, but at the same time non-committal: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”, and even the privately uttered “I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does”, all have the quality of a soundbite. The latter only became well-known later, but all three are equally easy to incorporate in basic narratives of the political right wing as well as the left. And FDR treated both his political “right hand” and his “left hand” as metaphorical members of his iconic body, as well as like opponents.

And, however controversial FDR was and remains, both sides of the political spectrum continued this habit of adopting and adapting FDR long after his death. Reagan famously claimed to have voted for Roosevelt each time he ran, suggesting he lost touch with the Democratic Party only later (“I didn’t desert my party. It deserted me.” – quoted in William Leuchtenburg, In the Shadow of FDR, 212). Thus, the public image FDR laid the foundations of, at once obscured his most assertive use of executive power and made him, like a real juggler, seem so flexible and transparent that he can still be called upon to perform in almost any context or narrative. That, seventy years beyond the man’s death, the FDR icon remains so nimble, is a testament both to his rhetorical artfulness and the conceptual flexibility of his autofabrication.

Sara Polak (Leiden University, the Netherlands) is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on Franklin D. Roosevelt as a Cultural Icon in American Memory. She is interested in how cultural construction (of history, memory, disability, celebrity, etc.) is shaped by and shapes individual and collective identities and ideologies. She blogs about her PhD project and adjacent topics at http://www.sarapolak.nl.

The Hunting of Billie Holiday & the Roots of the U.S. War on Drugs

Democracy Now April 7 2015

On the 100th birthday of the late Billie Holiday, we speak to journalist Johann Hari about how U.S. drug agents ruined the life of the country’s most celebrated jazz singer. Hari writes about Holiday in his new book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War of Drugs.” Watch our full interview with Hari here: Part 1 II Part 2


JOHANN HARI: Yeah, not far from where we are now, in 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage in a hotel, and she sings the song “Strange Fruit,” which obviously your viewers will know is an anti-lynching song. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said to me, “You’ve got to understand how shocking this was, right?” Billie Holiday wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel; she had to go through the service elevator. To have an African-American woman standing up, at a time when most pop songs were like twee, you know, “P.S. I Love You,” that kind of thing, singing against lynching in front of a white audience was regarded as really shocking. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she’s told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, “Stop singing this song.”

Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a man called Harry Anslinger, who I think is the most influential person who no one’s ever heard of. Harry Anslinger takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending, and he wants to find a new purpose for it. You know, he’s got this huge bureaucracy he wants to run. And he’s really driven by two passions: an intense hatred of African Americans—I mean, this is a guy who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists in the 1930s; he used the N-word in official police reports so often that his senator said he should have to resign—and a really strong hatred of addicts. And Billie Holiday, to him, was like the symbol of everything that was going wrong in America. And so, he gives her this order.

She refuses. She basically says, “Screw you. I’m an American citizen. I’ll say what I want.” She had grown up in segregated Baltimore, and she had promised herself she would never bow her head to any white man. And that’s when Harry Anslinger begins the process of stalking her, and eventually, I think, playing a role in her death, as was explained to me by her friends and by all the archival research.

The first person he sends to stalk her is an agent called Jimmy Fletcher. Harry Anslinger hated employing African Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday—it would be kind of obvious. So Jimmy Fletcher follows her around for two years, and she was so amazing, he fell in love with her. And he felt ashamed his whole life for what he did. He busts her. She’s sent to prison. The trial—she said, “The trial was called The United States v. Billie Holiday, and that’s how it felt.” And when she gets out, exactly what happens to addicts all over the United States today happens—what’s happened to those women I met in Arizona: She can’t get a job. You needed a license to be able to perform anywhere where alcohol was sold, and they wouldn’t give her the license. So, you know, her friend Yolande Bavan said to me, “What’s the cruelest thing you can do to a person is to take away the thing they love.” She sinks back into addiction.

When she’s in her early forties, she collapses here in New York City, she’s taken to hospital, and she’s convinced the narcotics agents aren’t finished with her. And she was right. She says to one of her friends, “They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me.” She was right. In her hospital bed, she’s diagnosed with liver cancer. I spoke to the only surviving person who was still in that room—who had been in that room. She’s handcuffed to the bed. They take away her record player and her candies. They don’t let her friends in to see her. One of her friends manages to insist to the doctors they give her methadone, because she had gone into withdrawal. She starts to recover a little bit. Ten days later, they cut off the methadone. She dies.

Her friend Annie Ross—you know, there are lots of things that—I think there’s lots of things in that dynamic that tell us a lot about the drug war, that it’s founded in a race panic. At the same time that Harry Anslinger finds out that Billie Holiday is using—is a heroin user, he finds out that Judy Garland was a heroin user. He advises her to take slightly longer vacations and tells her she’s going to be fine. Spot the difference.

But the most amazing thing to me about the Billie Holiday story that really helped me to think about the addicts in my life is she never stopped singing that song. She always found somewhere to sing it. You know, she went wherever they would have her, and she sang her song about lynching, no matter how much they tried to intimidate her. And to me, that’s really inspiring, not just for resisting the racism of the drug war, but actually for realizing that addicts can be heroes. All over the world while we’re talking, people are listening to Billie Holiday, and they are feeling stronger. And that is an incredible achievement. And the people resisting the drug war who I met all over the world, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to, you know, a scientist who was feeding hallucinogens to mongooses to see what would happen, to the only country that has ever decriminalized all drugs, there is heroism in resistance to this war all over the world.

Review of James Bradley’s “The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia 

HNN  April 3, 2015

In James Bradley’s “The China Mirage” he asks why his father found himself fighting the Japanese on Iwo Jima. Here he traces the roots of that war to ill-advised U.S. policies, its economic and paternalistic interest in China and its fear that Japan also had a serious and competing interest in China and East Asia. He ends up concluding that his father wound up on that godforsaken island so China could be freed from Japanese control and exploitation, thus allowing the U.S. and its British, Dutch and French imperial friends free access to its markets, resources and geographical position.

I recently watched “Sand Pebbles,” a mesmerizing 1966 film about an American gunboat navigating the Yangtze River deep into the Chinese interior during the Nationalist-warlord-Communist civil wars of the mid-1920s. What the film never explains is that the ship was there to protect commercial rights and extraterritorial privileges that European and American imperialists had seized over many decades of one-sided accords.

In 1784 the “Empress of China,” an American ship funded in part by businessmen eager to profit from the China trade, arrived in Canton. And well into the 19th Century a few more Americans, one of whom was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather, made their fortunes from the opium trade. Long before the U.S. became a debtor nation to China many American businessmen dreamed about vast treasures to be made in the lucrative China trade. “Imagine,” I once heard my CCNY political science professor say in class, “if every Chinese man and woman wore a white shirt every day what it would mean to American manufacturers of white shirts.”

It is Bradley’s contention that Americans have misunderstood and misjudged China, wedded as they were to the fantasy that China’s vast population was yearning to be Westernized and Americanized while ignoring that it had national interests of its own. This was never more obvious than after 1931, when the Japanese – eager to control China – invaded Manchuria, which the U.S. promptly denounced as an act of aggression. For both nations the great prize was China. Japan and U.S. were on the road to war.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor virtually every American believed, then and now, that it was a sneak, unwarranted attack on an innocent America. Far less concerned about Nazi conquests in Europe, most Americans were furious at what the “Japs” did on December 7th, FDR’s “Day of Infamy.” It then became morally and legally justifiable to incarcerate America’s Nisei and Issei in western desert camps (for different reasons, Norman Thomas, Robert Taft and J. Edgar Hoover were among the few public figures to object) and fight a savage Pacific war, ending with nuclear bombs directed at Japanese civilians.

Over the years writers like Bradley have challenged the dominant consensus that Japan, not the U.S., had alone provoked the war and was an expansionist, militarist state, unwilling to compromise—that is, accept American demands that it surrender its leading role in China. Bruce M. Russet’s largely forgotten 1971 book, “No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the U.S. Entry into WWII” argued, instead, that the U.S. contributed mightily to the coming of war by its embargos (in concert with Britain and the Dutch) of oil and raw materials on a Japan which had none of these vital resources. While “the threat to Japan of a raw material scarcity was obvious,” the policy of “gradually tightening economic measures,” Russett concluded, “was an escalation that was to drive Japan not to capitulation, as it was intended to do, but to war with the United States.”

Bradley’s view is that if the Japanese had submitted to U.S. demands it would have meant abandoning China in favor of an updated imperial and pro-western Open Door Policy. But Japan saw U.S. intervention in China as no different from the Monroe Doctrine, which demanded absolute American control of the Western Hemisphere. Once its oil pipeline was shut down, Japan, writes Bradley, was stranded like “an industrialized beached whale.” Neither Tokyo nor Washington would budge, leading Dean Acheso, Henry Stimson and Henry Morgenthau, among other White House hawks, to “set the war clock ticking in Tokyo.” Surprisingly, Bradley reveals that neither FDR nor Cordell Hull, his Secretary of State, knew that Acheson & Company had unilaterally cut off oil shipments which, the Japanese historian Akira Iriye concluded in 1981, “had a tremendous psychological impact upon the Japanese” and led directly to Tokyo’s suicidal decision to go to war.

“The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia,” is a vivid, bracing and careful study, sure to be dismissed by some as revisionist history. Echoing Russett’s argument about the embargos and sanctions against Japan, but going far beyond it, Bradley charges that long before Pearl Harbor, U.S. policymakers were willing to go to war if Japan ever conquered British and French Southeast Asia and Dutch Indonesia since that would mean the loss of rubber, tin and tungsten that helped fuel American industry. Some of Bradley’s arguments were already accepted in part by George Herring (“From Colony to Superpower”): “[we] backed a proud nation into a position where its only choices were war or surrender. John Toland’s verdict was that “a grave diplomatic blunder” was enabled “by allowing an issue not vital to basic American national interests—the welfare of China— to become, at the last moment, the keystone of her foreign policy.” (Think of the U.S’s deepening involvement with Ukraine today.) Indeed, Jonathan Marshall’s “To Have and Have Not” wrote that FDR – who inherited his grandfather’s passion for China – and his pro-Chiang Kai-shek, anti- Communist aides – agreed with the “fundamental proposition that the U.S. could not afford to lose the raw materials and sea lanes of Southeast Asia,” never saying out loud that such a policy might lead to war – a warning for Americans today that should China ever move on those disputed rocky, uninhabited islets in the South China Sea claimed by Japan, the Philippines and China, our mutual defense treaties would oblige us to go to war.

The U.S. managed to avoid a shooting war during the Chinese civil wars but from late 1927 on placed its bet on Chiang. As WWII drew to a close and the UN was being established FDR insisted that Chiang’s China be made a member of the UN’s Big Four, which the ever quotable and opinionated Churchill mocked. “In Washington,” he wrote in the fourth volume of his wartime memoirs, “I had found the extraordinary significance of China in American minds, even at the top. Strangely out of proportion.” But FDR could not be persuaded.

For years, Washington’s foreign policy elite and compliant mass media helped shaped popular support for Chiang and his glamorous Americanized wife, whom Henry Luce, the son of missionaries, repeatedly praised in his influential “Time.” Meanwhile, millions of American dollars were lavished on Chiang and his wife’s powerful Soong family, fostering the illusion that the Kuomintang was actually fighting the Japanese. The money often disappeared (think of all those unaccountable billions sent to our Iraqi and Afghan war “allies”). As Bradley puts it, “Chiang handled the foreign loot,” a sentiment with which Truman later agreed when he called Chiang and his allies thieves. Finally, in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, America’s favorites, were defeated by Mao’s communists and the U.S. refuse to recognize the change until Nixon and Kissinger took their secret trip to Beijing.

The truth is that there never would have been a Korean War (or a Vietnam War) had there not been a Cold War between Moscow and Washington. So in June 1950 it was easy for American policymakers to misread an “an incident in a small Asian civil war as a challenge to their global containment policy, incorrectly concluding that Moscow—working through Beijing and Pyongyang—had ordered the crossing [of the 38th Parallel] when it was only a North Korean action.” To call off the dogs, Acheson recommended Truman send in the military without a congressional authorization. Once the shooting began and after Chinese “volunteers” entered the war, the China Lobby and its allies in Congress began denouncing Truman as an appeaser for losing China. General MacArthur and the China Lobby repeatedly urged Truman to “unleash” Chiang’s exiled and defeated army against the Chinese and North Korean forces. After Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, the China Lobby went berserk. “The son of a bitch [Truman] should be impeached,” growled Joe McCarthy. If that weren’t enough, Bradley writes that Acheson, incredibly, advised Truman “to send covert military aid to the French in Indochina for their war against Ho Chi Minh. With no debate– and none was sought—a Wise Man, rattled by events in Asia he little understood, committed the U.S. to current and future wars.” As David Halberstam, in “The Coldest Winter,” his revealing book about the Korean War, commented, correctly, “The issue of China itself hovered over every decision.”

“Who Lost China” became the deceitful and inflammatory slogan of demagogic politicians, private and religious interests, wealthy businessmen and Joe Mc Carthy and his minions. They pounced on an intimidated and frightened State Department and White House. Veteran China specialists were fired, persecuted and prosecuted for reporting that Mao was not Stalin’s stooge and Chiang and his cohorts were corrupt and ineffective. (See, for example, John Paton Davies, Jr.’s “China Hand: An Autobiography.”)

In retrospect, a fearful and angry nation had gone mad. Blacklists, jail terms, a few, but very few, Soviet spies (we had our spies too in Russia), and a shamefully conformist mass media helped scare and silence potential critics. Bradley mentions that Acheson’s infamous and secret NCS-68 policy was adopted in April 1950 and transformed the nation into the militarized global avenger of “evil” nations and also into an enduring national security state, which Dwight Eisenhower later but unsuccessfully, warned us against. Bradley makes it easier to understand LBJ’s plunge into Vietnam, George Bush’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq and Obama’s immersion into the Middle East’s tangle of complex religious and political rivalries.

Now, as if in a repeat of past history, Obama’s baffling “pivot to Asia” is clearly aimed at a powerful China, no longer an American or Japanese supplicant. There are lessons to be learned about war and peace and Bradley’s valuable book offers a warning about past and future unnecessary entanglements.

Murray Polner is a blogger, writer and HNN Book Department editor.


Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

How the Slave Trade Built America

disunion45We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.

Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.

When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”

Even though Lumpkin’s coffle was not, as Coffin so colorfully pronounced it, “the last slave gang seen in this Western world,” his comment points to the way that the slave trade had become the iconic symbol of the institution of slavery. And with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox only a few days later, the reporter’s prophetic statement became true for the United States. It was the end of the slave traders and slave gangs.

Richmond had long been the epicenter of the northern end of the American slave trade. In the preceding decades, tens of thousands of people had been brought to the city from the surrounding regions, where they were held in jails, sold at auction and sent to labor in the sugar and cotton fields of the Deep South. From the end of America’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 until the opening of the Civil War, at least two-thirds of a million people were forcibly relocated through the internal American slave trade from the Upper South (Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina) to the Lower (especially Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama). This massive movement of people populated what was then considered the American Southwest and resulted in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families as husbands and wives, parents and children were sold away.

The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.

Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.

The slave trade is not merely a footnote or a side story in the history of American slavery, but was central to its modernization and continuation. That was well understood by the Boston artist David Claypool Johnston, who used it to powerful illustrative effect in his satirical work “The House That Jeff Built.” Playing off the English nursery rhyme “This is the House That Jack Built,” Johnston wrote and illustrated a series of 12 verses, beginning with the simple statement, “This is the house that Jeff built.” “Jeff” is, of course, Jefferson Davis, and his “house” is shown as a slave pen with a sign announcing a slave auction to the left of the door. Three scenes later, the image shows the inside of a slave auction room, with two men seated on a bench and two women and children standing. “These are the chattels,” the poem tells us, “To be sold by the head, in the slave pen: A part of the house that Jeff built.”

"The House That Jeff Built," by David Claypoole Johnston, 1863.

“The House That Jeff Built,” by David Claypoole Johnston, 1863.Credit Library of Congress

Other images show slave dealers, slave buyers, slave breeders, manacles and whips. The final image displays the paraphernalia of the slave trade: manacles, an auction hammer, a “slave auction” sign, advertisements and bills of sale. For this artist, like so many Americans, the slave trade stood at the center of the Confederacy and was the reason they had continued to fight the war. The last stanza reads:

But Jeff’s infamous house is doom’d to come down.
So says Uncle Sam and so said John Brown. —
With slave pen, and auction, shackles, driver, and cat,
Together with seller, and buyer, and breeder for that
Most loathsome of bipeds by some call’d a man,
Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can,
From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span,
In and out of the house that Jeff built.

On that day in Richmond in 1865, when Jeff’s house finally came down, thousands of people no longer had to fear that at any moment they could be sold away. As the city was abandoned, chaos reigned. Fires set to warehouses grew out of control and burned much of the city. On April 4, Abraham Lincoln arrived and was thronged by African-Americans, who had lived their entire lives with an auction hammer hanging over their head. As a former slave named William Wells Brown explained: “None … can estimate the suffering their victims undergo. If there is one feature of American slavery more abominable than another, it is that which sanctions the buying and selling of human beings.”

After decades of steady business along Wall Street in Richmond, the auction rooms were silent. The detritus of the business of human trafficking littered the floor: shackles, bills of sale, advertisements, receipts and ledgers. On April 8, 1865, as the city still smoldered, two Massachusetts abolitionists, Sarah and Lucy Chase, who were in Virginia to help educate emancipated African-Americans, entered Richard H. Dickinson’s slave-trading house on the corner of Franklin and Wall Streets. Wanting something to document the atrocities of slavery, they scooped up two ledger books and a stack of correspondence documenting the sale of thousands of men, women and children.

civil-war-sumter75-popupWhen they first saw Richmond from its docks a few days earlier, they had been struck by the symbolic image of the burned out city. Sarah wrote that nothing was left of the warehouses “but the brick walls ragged and jagged pointing their threatening fingers to heaven,” concluding, “as if saying there is justice.” She noted that inside the ledger books Dickinson had recorded the sales of several slaves on March 31, but for April 1 — one day before the Confederate retreat — only the date was written. There were no sales. “Thank God — no more was written or will ever be in that bloody register.” As Union troops filled the streets, as Lincoln toured the city, as the auction rooms fell silent, thousands rejoiced that they would never have to fear the slave market again.

At the end of the war, abolitionists like the Chase sisters collected documents and artifacts to preserve the memory of the slave trade and document why the sacrifices of the war had been necessary. But with the resurgence of white supremacy in the late 19th century, much of that history was deliberately removed from public memory. In Richmond, for example, slave-trader offices were quickly repurposed or destroyed. First the railroad and then I-95 forever altered the landscape where most of the trade took place.

But the story of the slave trade lived on in the family histories of African-Americans, and in the last decade of so, its memory has returned to the broader public consciousness as well. Current exhibitions on the slave trade in Richmond and New Orleans have led to new discoveries of histories long buried. This new research into the slave trade will give all of us an opportunity to make sure that it is never forgotten again.

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Sources: Charles Carleton Coffin, “The Boys of ’61; or, Four Years of Fighting”; Sarah Chase, comments in R. H. Dickinson & Bro. record book, 1855-58, Slavery in the United States Collection, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.; William Wells Brown, “Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown: An American Slave.”

Maurie D. McInnis is the author of “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade” and the curator of “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade,” a show at the Library of Virginia on view until May 30, 2015.

Members of the Black Panther Party are met on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento by state police Lt. Ernest Holloway, May 2, 1967. World-Telegram / Library of Congress

African Americans have sought liberation from racial oppression by virtually every form of protest, with nonviolent resistance the most lauded in national memory. Appeals to law, such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and public opinion, such as the 1963 March on Washington, have left impressive legacies. Directed by racial integrationists such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), this strand of protest challenged and changed but did not seek to alienate or overthrow the white establishment, at least those sectors of it amenable to liberal racial reform.

A competing strand pledged to use “any means necessary” to gain and exercise self-determination. The most influential champions of this approach sought a radically reconfigured society, not one in which blacks are merely assimilated into existing hierarchies. Compared to the likes of King and Marshall, the figures and organizations associated with the more disruptive tradition—Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, the post-1965 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party—have not fared nearly so well in public esteem. In the popular memory of the 1960s and 1970s, the ascendant view holds that black power protest contributed little to improving black lives and, through its violent rhetoric and action, undercut the efforts of the integrationists. Revisionists have come forward to challenge this view. The late Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, Peniel Joseph’s Stokely: A Life, and Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party all seek to elevate the reputations of black power radicals. But their efforts are subverted by sloppy argumentation and insistent adulation. In each of these books, analysis is overshadowed by hagiography.

Malcolm X

UnknownNamed Malcolm Little by his parents, the man later dubbed Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska, May 19, 1925. He suffered a traumatic childhood. At the age of two, he moved with his parents to a house on the outskirts of Lansing, Michigan. Perhaps unbeknownst to the Littles, the house was encumbered by a racially restrictive covenant—a contract in which the previous owner of the property had promised not to sell it to blacks. White neighbors sought and obtained a court order evicting the Littles. Before the order could be carried out, other whites adopted a more aggressive means of driving the Littles away: they burned the house down.

When Malcolm was only six, his father was run over by a streetcar. Maybe the death was an accident. But Malcolm perceived the matter differently as an adult, and not without justification. Earl Little may well have been murdered by white supremacists who were angered by his independence and racial pride; he was a stalwart and vocal supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. After her husband’s death, Louise Little broke down mentally and was institutionalized for the remainder of her life. Consigned to foster care or the loose supervision of older siblings, Malcolm was eventually expelled from school. He supported himself with menial employment in New York City and Boston, took illicit drugs, and eventually turned to serious crime. At twenty-one he was sentenced to prison in Massachusetts for burglary and larceny.

In the course of his six-year incarceration, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam (NOI). His older siblings extolled the virtues of the sect. Its autocratic leader, “The Messenger” Elijah Muhammad, preached a unique theology, which synthesized some of the nomenclature and symbolism of Islam with a cosmology that refracted the peculiar experience of blacks in America. While American culture, secular and religious, has typically privileged whiteness and derogated blackness, the NOI reversed this paradigm.

According to Elijah Muhammad, blacks were the Earth’s “original” people. An evil scientist, Dr. Yakub, created whites, who succeeded for centuries in enslaving and otherwise exploiting and oppressing blacks. Whites, whom Elijah Muhammad called “devils” and “archdeceivers,” succeeded in divesting blacks of virtually everything valuable, including their very names. The surnames of most blacks, Elijah Muhammad asserted, were shameful “slave names” that obscured their true identities. Elijah Muhammad, named Elijah Poole at birth, assured his followers it was God’s will for blacks to regain their initial and rightful ascendancy. He insisted, though, that in preparation for that glorious and fast-approaching turnabout, blacks should separate themselves from whites, develop economic self-sufficiency, and cleanse themselves physically and morally by forsaking liquor, drugs, swine, and fornication.

Upon leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm X showed himself to be a driven, resourceful, and charismatic disciple. He drew converts, resuscitated failing temples and established new ones, and delivered countless speeches differentiating what he depicted as the dignified separatism of Black Muslims from the craven integrationism of Uncle Toms and other “so-called Negroes” who begged the white man for acceptance. While civil rights activists encouraged blacks to vote and otherwise participate in every sphere of American life, Malcolm X, following the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, eschewed voting and protest, reasoning that the United States was unchangeable and irredeemable. While civil rights activists repudiated the notion that the United States was a white man’s country, Malcolm X insisted it was and always would be.

With his provocative speeches, military bearing, forbidding countenance, and biting wit, Malcolm X captured the attention of curious whites, such as the television journalist Mike Wallace, who aired a show, “The Hate That Hate Produced,” which elevated Black Muslims’ public profile. Ironically, while Malcolm X at this time constantly expressed contempt for whites, deriding them as “blue-eyed devils,” it was the fascination of white journalists and academics that made him into a minor celebrity on television, radio, and college campuses.

That very fascination helped to undo Malcolm X. It brought to him prestige and prominence that exceeded the notice accorded others in the Black Muslim leadership. Envious of his protégé, Elijah Muhammad first muzzled and then hounded Malcolm X, prompting him to leave the NOI in March 1964.

In the last year of his life, Malcolm X conducted himself with the whirlwind energy of a man who intuited that he had little time left. He embraced orthodox Islam, completed the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obligated to undertake if possible at least once in their lifetime), renamed himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, traveled widely in Africa and the Middle East, renounced the NOI’s anti-white theology, threw himself into political activism that had previously been off limits, founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and collaborated with Alex Haley in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Black Muslims accused Malcolm of betrayal. “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death,” Louis X, now known as Louis Farrakhan, proclaimed in December 1964. Weeks later, on February 21, 1965, assailants affiliated with the NOI assassinated Malcolm X in Harlem.

Malcolm X has been the subject of several biographies, the most recent and comprehensive of which is Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Marable’s mission was to “go beyond the legend; to recount what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life.” He pursued that aim earnestly, probing the whole of his subject’s story, personal and public, no matter how embarrassing the findings. He recounts Malcolm X’s secret 1961 meeting with representatives of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan to discuss their shared insistence on racial separation. He notes that at a few NOI rallies Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad hosted George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party. In Marable’s telling Elijah Muhammad believed himself divinely omniscient, directed Malcolm X to pay tribute, prohibited him from working with civil rights activists, and even prevented him from confronting Los Angeles police who had maimed and killed members of the NOI. Elijah Muhammad’s manipulations extended to all his deputies: he insisted that ministers desist from buying life insurance so that they would be all the more subservient out of fear for their families in the event of their incapacitation or death.

According to Marable, jealousy, enmity, pettiness, and corruption poisoned the inner circle of the NOI. He describes NOI officials beating followers as a mode of discipline and demanding increased tithes to pay for personal extravagances, such as luxury automobiles. He maintains that Malcolm X’s marriage to Betty Shabazz was a loveless affair, marked by neglect (his) and infidelity (hers). He claims that “circumstantial but strong evidence” suggests that at least once Malcolm X indulged in a paid homosexual liaison. He confirms Malcolm X’s allegations that Elijah Muhammad, while married, seduced young followers, got them pregnant, and then abandoned them and their children, all the while preaching the virtue of chastity and patriarchal duty.

Marable’s provides abundant resources from which to draw for purposes of castigating Elijah Muhammad, the NOI, and Malcolm X. Many of these ugly facts had been previously uncovered by other researchers, but none had Marable’s academic stature or political credentials. Marable was the founding director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African American Studies and was an important, well-respected figure among left black activist intellectuals. His candor is impressive; he must have known it would provoke accusations of rank betrayal. He certainly understood that some admirers and apostles of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad would berate him for publishing material that hurts the reputation of twentieth-century black nationalism, and would claim that he was doing so opportunistically while feeding off of white, elite institutions—Columbia University and the Viking Press publishing house—that are largely unaccountable and indifferent to black folk.

These and other allegations and insinuations can be found in two compilations of essays, A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X (2012), edited by Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, and By Any Means Necessary: Malcolm X: Real, not Reinvented—Critical Conversations on Manning Marable’s Biography of Malcolm X (2012), edited by Herb Boyd, Ron Daniels, Maulana Karenga, and Haki Madhubuti. While the latter collection contains several instructive essays, the former is uniformly tendentious, with piece after piece asserting not just that Marable is mistaken or negligent but that he knowingly spreads falsehoods. “More than merely viewing Marable’s reinvention of Malcolm as false,” Ball writes, “we have, beginning with our choice of book title, unapologetically laid down our claim that it is a lie.”

These overheated ad hominem attacks lack substantiation. Those who accuse Marable of lying fail to adduce credible evidence. They cavalierly fling charges that should only be made with care.

They are also wrong in another way. They maintain that Marable fails to accord Malcolm X sufficient credit. Actually, though, he gives the man too much credit. Marable remains enmeshed in the Malcolm X legend. He declares in the final sentence of his biography that “Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured.” Yet Marable’s narrative indicates that Malcolm X was actually a poor leader, subject to all manner of bad ideas, who constantly misjudged people and events. For most of his post-prison life, he was the mouthpiece for a theocrat who, claiming access to divine revelation, propagated an escapist, socially conservative (e.g., anti–birth control) black nationalism that was sexist in its subordination of women and racist in its condemnation of whites.

Elijah Muhammad’s racial teachings must be recalled with particularity. To him, not some whites but all whites were “devils,” doomed by their race to be evildoers. In Message to the Blackman in America (1965), he insists, “The origin of sin, the origin of murder, the origin of lying are deceptions originated with the creators of evil and injustice—the white race.” Whites, he writes, “cannot produce good for they are without the nature of good.” “None of them are righteous—no not one,” he proclaims. “They are ever seeking to do harm to [blacks] every second of the day and night.” Angered and disgusted by “the most wicked and deceiving race that ever lived on our planet,” he foresaw and eagerly anticipated the destruction of whites. Nothing else could bring relief because “as long as the devil is on our planet we will continue to suffer injustice and unrest and have no peace.” But deliverance is coming, The Messenger prophesies: “The guilty who have spread evilness and corruption throughout the land must face the sentence wrought by their own hands.”

Malcolm X dutifully echoed his spiritual master, albeit with élan and greater attentiveness to current events, domestic and international. A good example of Malcolm X ’s oratory as a NOI minister is his address “Message to the Grassroots,” delivered in Detroit at the King Solomon Baptist Church in November 1963. In it he expressed his disgust at the government’s broken promises with an uninhibited candor that many blacks found thrilling.

The speech was one of the last Malcolm X delivered prior to leaving the NOI, and, in it, he voiced signature themes. One is the need to recognize the shared adversary: “Once we all realize that we have a common enemy, then we unite . . . . And what we have in common is that enemy—the white man. He’s the enemy to us all.”

A second theme is the importance of a united black front free of white influence. “We need,” Malcolm X declared, “to stop airing our differences in front of the white man, put the white man out of our meetings, and then sit down and talk shop with each other.” Railing against what he saw as the dilutive effect of white participation in the Civil Rights Movement, he turned to mockery: “It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak.” It was because of the need to accommodate whites that the March on Washington “lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. . . . it was a sellout.”

A third, related, theme is the absence of authentic black leaders accountable to black folk. The white man, Malcolm X charged, “takes a Negro, a so-called Negro, and makes him prominent, builds him up, publicizes him, makes him a celebrity,” and then foists him upon blacks as a leader. The white man then uses these manufactured Negro leaders “against the black revolution.”

Just as the slavemaster . . . used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, twentieth-century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, to keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent.

What caused the most excitement and earned the most denunciation was Malcolm X’s observation regarding violence. “If violence is wrong in America,” Malcolm X thundered, “violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her.” Before King and others related domestic race relations to U.S. foreign policy, Malcolm X did so.

He also reproached blacks for what he saw as their failure to defend themselves adequately. “You bleed for white people,” he said. “But when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got any blood. . . . How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea?” As for the philosophical nonviolence insisted upon by King and others, Malcolm X was downright contemptuous. “Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms . . . singing ‘We Shall Overcome’? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging.”

While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.

Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality, unmasked the emptiness of Malcolm X’s thinking during a debate in 1962. “We know the disease, physician,” he said, “what is the cure? What is your program and how do you hope to bring it into effect?” At a loss for anything pertinent to say, Malcolm X chastised Farmer for having married a white woman.

Marable emphasizes that Malcolm X displayed a remarkable capacity for growth and reinvention, especially during his final year of life. Tragically, however, he was murdered by former comrades before his transformation could fully develop. In subsequent decades, propagandists, activists, politicians, rappers, and filmmakers have remade Malcolm X, portraying him as a figure who rivaled King in vision and achievement. By downplaying Malcolm X’s complicity in spreading a morally bankrupt and socially backward ideology, by exaggerating the significance of that final year, and by failing to examine more searchingly Malcolm X’s proposals, Marable contributes to this mythology. He accords to his hero a stature in memory that he lacked in history.
Stokely Carmichael

imagesWhile Malcolm X is the most celebrated figure in the black power line of African American protest, Stokely Carmichael occupies a unique place as the person who popularized the “black power” slogan.

His key intervention came on June 16, 1966, during the March Against Fear, which had been initiated by James Meredith, the black man who broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. Meredith had planned to walk alone from Memphis to Jackson to dramatize the determination of blacks to exercise freedoms long denied them. After a white man shot and wounded Meredith on the second day of his trek, Carmichael joined activists from across the Civil Rights Movement to resuscitate the effort. Along the way, Carmichael was jailed for defying an order against raising tents to shelter marchers on the grounds of a black public school. Upon release, Carmichael declared, the “only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying ‘freedom’. . . and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start sayin’ now is ‘black power’!” The crowd responded with exhilaration: “Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!”

Carmichael joined the March Against Fear as the newly elected chair of SNCC. Born in Trinidad in 1941, raised in New York City, and introduced to serious political activism at Howard University, Carmichael was part of that remarkable cadre of reformers whom Howard Zinn called “the new abolitionists” and whom Jack Newfield dubbed the “prophetic minority.” He joined in freedom rides, sit-ins, and voter registration drives. He canvassed places in the Deep South where “uppity Negroes”—that is, blacks who sought to take advantage of their rights as American citizens—were murdered with impunity. On his twentieth birthday he found himself incarcerated in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Prison for entering a white waiting room in a train station in Jackson. When he and his associates climbed out of a paddy wagon, an officer drawled, “We got nine: five black niggers and four white niggers.” By the time of the March Against Fear, Carmichael had been jailed at least two-dozen times.

Peniel Joseph’s biography, Stokely: A Life, is an admiring depiction of a brave, handsome, talented, well-spoken man who gave himself unstintingly to the Civil Rights Movement during its most glorious years in the early 1960s. The key moment for Carmichael, Joseph agrees, is the evening he shouted “black power” to that crowd in Mississippi:

by his ambition, stood at the center of this storm deploying provocative rhetoric with passion and eloquence. He instantly commanded the space previously occupied by Malcolm X, assassinated sixteen months earlier.

After that Carmichael became a celebrity. He was invited onto television programs such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation and was profiled in Time. He was vilified by politicians seeking the support of anxious or angry white voters and invited to speak at colleges and universities.

Working in the Deep South with his comrades in SNCC prior to black power—figuring out how to present to the nation the lawless oppression that blacks endured and experimenting with methods for raising the political consciousness of African American serfs—Carmichael distinguished himself in an inspiring campaign of social justice. His colleagues admired his dedication, persistence, idealism, loyalty, and courage. As he rose in prominence, however, the quality of his character, political and personal, deteriorated.

Although SNCC was already in decline when Carmichael was elected to head it in 1966, he failed to slow its descent and probably accelerated it. Carmichael’s predecessor as chair was John Lewis, a remarkable figure then who has only become more extraordinary over the years during his tenure as a Democratic member of the Georgia congressional delegation. Lewis’s reelection as chair initially appeared pro forma. But some in SNCC complained that he was insufficiently militant and too much of an interracialist. They wanted to assert a right to respond to violence with violence; they thought SNCC should be run by and for blacks; and they insisted that whites exercise negligible, if any, influence within the organization. Though Lewis was at first re-elected, opponents challenged the ballot, and Carmichael prevailed in a recount. The awkward reversal poisoned Lewis’s relationship with Carmichael. Soon the triumphant militants ran away the whites on SNCC’s staff.

According to Joseph, “Carmichael used his one-year tenure as SNCC Chairman to thrust himself into the stratosphere of American politics.” He hobnobbed with the heads of the other leading civil rights organizations—Farmer, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League and, of course, King. He socialized with activist entertainers such as Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, whom he later married. He interacted, too, with important white politicians, often refusing to abide by conventional standards of decorum: he spurned a White House invitation and declined to shake the mayor of Atlanta’s outstretched hand.

The more defiant Carmichael’s actions, the more provocative his rhetoric, the more attention he received. This fed his ego but did little to buoy SNCC’s sagging fortunes, a fact that did not escape the notice of colleagues who began to deride him as “Stokely Starmichael.” “SNCC’s organizational strength seemed to decline,” Joseph maintains, “in proportion to Carmichael’s growing fame.” Rather than seek a second term as Chair, Carmichael turned the leadership of SNCC over to H. Rap Brown, who fecklessly presided over the organization’s quickening slide. In an ugly spectacle, SNCC tore itself apart, pathetically betraying the racial unity its leaders trumpeted. In the summer of 1968, it expelled Carmichael.

After a dalliance with the Black Panther Party, including as its honorary prime minister, Carmichael journeyed abroad where he was received as an esteemed revolutionary in some quarters and established the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, which never amounted to much. Eventually he settled in Guinea, where he changed his name to Kwame Turé in homage to Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed first president of Ghana, and Sekou Turé, Guinea’s dictatorial president. Stricken by prostate cancer, Carmichael/Turé died in Guinea on November 15, 1998.

Joseph has studied black power deeply, producing a series of well-regarded articles and books including, most notably, Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006). His biography of Carmichael, however, is not nearly as informative as it should be. Joseph stresses that Carmichael was a skillful and effective organizer in the Deep South during his early days with SNCC. Missing, however, is a detailed rendering of what being an organizer meant. What did Carmichael say to vulnerable black farmers he sought to bring into the political process? How did he earn their confidence and respect? What did he do day by day?

Joseph relies upon confidently asserted adjectives, usually flattering ones, to do what should be done by careful, patient, and detailed exposition. For instance, he describes Carmichael’s 1966 New York Review of Books essay “What We Want” as “brilliant.” According to Joseph, “‘What We Want’ intellectually disarmed some of Carmichael’s fiercest critics and in the process announced SNCC’s Chairman as a formidable thinker.” Joseph neglects, however, to identify the critics to whom he refers, the criticisms to which he alludes, or, most importantly, the reasons why an observer ought to agree with his attribution of brilliance. He quotes a passage from Carmichael’s essay:

For too many years, black Americans marched and had their heads broken and got shot. They were saying to the country, ‘Look, you guys are supposed to be nice guys and we are only going to do what we are supposed to do—why do you beat us up, why don’t you give us what you ask, why don’t you straighten yourselves out?’ After years of this, we are at almost the same point—because we demonstrated from a position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and to have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.

Is this brilliant? Not self-evidently so.

Joseph spends less than two pages on the most important of Carmichael’s writings: Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967), coauthored by political scientist Charles Hamilton. According to Joseph, Black Power is a “still-powerful diagnosis of America’s tortured racial history” and “an intellectually rigorous and theoretically subtle political treatise whose unexpected breadth and depth surprised critics.” Joseph, however, offers no detailed and sustained description of Black Power. “Carmichael and Hamilton offered an alternative reading of American history,” Joseph writes. “They replaced optimistic narratives of democratic ascent with the reality of racial oppression, white violence, and a national failure on racial matters.” But a summary so abstract offers readers little insight into Black Power’s contribution to the literature produced by the civil rights revolution. Joseph notes that Black Power was reviewed in several magazines and newspapers upon publication. That is useful. But what have commentators said about Black Power over the past four decades? And how does the book look in comparison with the writings of others and in light of subsequent developments? Answers are not to be found in Stokely.

Joseph discusses Lewis’s ouster from the chairmanship of SNCC all too briefly. Devoting less than a page to this episode, Joseph alludes to it as if readers should be so familiar with the dispute that further elaboration isn’t needed. I have my doubts. Moreover, whether or not readers are familiar with it, the contest between Lewis and Carmichael was so important and remains sufficiently divisive that it warrants comprehensive evaluation. In Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998), Lewis spends an entire chapter on the disputed election. In Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (2003), Joseph’s hero offers a very different story. Which account is more credible? Is there a synthesis superior to both? Again, Joseph offers no guidance.
Huey Newton

51Ok4OtnVaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In 1966, in Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale set in motion what became the Black Panther Party. Newton was a child of the Great Migration. He was born in 1942 in Monroe, Louisiana, the youngest of seven, and moved to Oakland in 1945. His parents were drawn by the prospect of economic opportunities stemming from the World War II industrial boom. In the early ’60s, Newton attended Merritt College, where he met Seale. Seale was also a migrant—born in Dallas in 1936 and raised in Oakland in a working-class family. He did a stint in the Air Force before enrolling at Merritt where, along with Newton, he immersed himself in roiling debates about black history, socialism, black nationalism, integration, and anti-colonialism.

Frustrated by continuing racial subordination notwithstanding the apparent victories of the Civil Rights Movement, Newton and Seale decided to express themselves in a fashion that would appeal first and foremost to the “brothers on the block.” Their audience comprised working- and lower-class blacks who were impatient with appeals to the conscience of the white establishment and who hungered instead for an assertive, defiant politics, a politics that expressed demands for black power not only in rhetoric but in deed. Newton and Seale objected to the entire gamut of obstacles and disabilities that burdened poor urban blacks. The scope of their discontent, the depth of their ambition, and the radicalism of their methods can be seen in the most impressive writing they produced—the “Ten Point Program” that served as a platform for the newly formed Panthers. “To those poor souls who don’t know Black history, the beliefs and desires of the Black Panther Party may seem unreasonable,” Newton and Seale wrote. But “to Black people, the ten points covered are absolutely essential to survival.” Echoing calls for “Freedom Now,” the program complained that Blacks “have listened to the riot producing words ‘these things take time’ for 400 years.” Newton and Seale itemized “What We Want”:

1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.

2. We want full employment for our people.

3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black and oppressed communities.

4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.

5. We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of the decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.

6. We want completely free health care for all Black and oppressed people.

7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.

8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.

9. We want freedom for all Black and oppressed people now held in U.S. Federal, State, County, City and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.

10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.

The program is an arresting synthesis. It echoes the ten-point platform that Malcolm X created for the Nation of Islam in 1963. It also expressly invokes the most iconic documents of the United States, repeatedly alluding to the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The program concludes with the prologue to the Declaration of Independence.

Newton and Seale chose as their key issue police misconduct, especially the use of excessive force. They borrowed a tactic other activists had deployed after instances of police misconduct. They would follow and observe Oakland cops, all the while carrying loaded firearms publicly, which state law then permitted them to do. Although this tactic prompted confrontations with police, Newton and Seale refused to back down. They believed that routine humiliation and brutalization by police epitomized blacks’ racial subordination, and they insisted that blacks had a right to defend themselves against police misconduct.

Three confrontations with police in 1967 forged the Panthers’ reputation. In January a contingent led by Newton entered the lobby of the San Francisco airport. In Black Against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. write that the Panthers were “dressed in uniform—waist-length leather jackets, powder blue shirts, and black berets cocked to the right.” The men displayed shotguns and pistols—again, legally. They had come to the airport to receive Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, and to escort her to an interview with an ex-convict journalist writing forRamparts magazine, Eldridge Cleaver. At the Ramparts office, Newton got into an altercation with a reporter. According to Bloom and Martin:

Police officers reacted, several flipping loose the little straps that held their pistols in their holsters. One started shouting at Newton who stopped and stared at the cop. Seale tried to get Newton to leave. Newton ignored him and walked right up to the cop. ‘What’s the matter,’ Newton said, ‘you got an itchy finger?’

The cop made no reply and simply stared Newton in the eye, keeping his hand on his gun and taking his measure. The other officers called out for the cop to cool it, but he kept staring at Newton. ‘O.K. you big fat racist pig, draw your gun,’ Newton challenged. The cop made no move. Newton shouted, ‘Draw it, you cowardly dog!’ He pumped a round into the shotgun chamber.

The other officers spread out, stepping away from the line of fire. Finally, the cop gave up, sighing heavily and hanging his head. Newton laughed in his face as the remaining Panthers dispersed.

A second episode, in May, earned the Panthers their first brush with national media attention. A group of uniformed Panthers entered the California capitol building with their firearms in full view to denounce proposed legislation that, if enacted, would outlaw the carrying of loaded guns in public. Bloom and Martin portray this demonstration as profoundly significant:

The Sacramento protest attracted a wider movement audience and established the Black Panther Party as a new model for political struggle. Soon students at San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley flocked to Panther rallies by the thousands. Countless numbers of young blacks—looking for a way to join the ‘Movement,’ or just to channel their anger at the oppressive conditions in which they lived—now had a political organization they could call their own.

Finally, on the evening of October 27, Newton killed an Oakland police officer, John Frey. Newton was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter, though his conviction was overturned on appeal. Two retrials ended with hung juries. The “Free Huey” campaign made Newton one of the most publicized inmates of the 1960s.

Bloom and Martin maintain, “From 1968 through 1970, the Black Panther Party made it impossible for the U.S. government to maintain business as usual, and it helped create a far-reaching crisis in U.S. society.” For substantiation, they turn to a witness on the left, the Students for a Democratic Society, which called the Panthers the “vanguard in our common struggles against capitalism and imperialism.” They also turn to a witness on the right, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who in 1969 declared, “The Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Indeed, according to Bloom and Martin, the Panthers’ impact did not stop at the border, as the party “forged powerful alliances, drawing widespread support . . . from anti-imperialist governments and movements around the globe.” “Without the Black Panther Party,” Bloom and Martin insist, “we would now live in a very different world.”

The authors are unabashed in their admiration for the Panthers. They praise the Panthers’ revolutionary aspirations—their demand for a new, post-capitalist, anti-racist social order as opposed to integrationist reformers who merely wanted a larger piece of the American pie. They laud the Panthers’ willingness to confront police in word and practice. They applaud the party’s efforts to suppress homophobia and sexism within its own ranks. They acclaim the Panthers’ efforts to feed children through a much-heralded breakfast program and to make accessible to poor people much-needed medical care. They commend the Panthers for having been more cosmopolitan and open to interracial coalitions than were other champions of black power in the late ’60s, for having been more radical than the establishment’s favorite organs of civil rights protest, for having opposed U.S. foreign policy even in a time of war. They rightly note that the party was the victim of a ruthless campaign of suppression by local, state, and federal officials. Its ranks were infiltrated by government agents and its members abused by police. Making a mockery of legal protections for freedom of expression and association, the FBI sought to turn local constituencies against the Panthers and tried, sometimes with deadly effectiveness, to turn Panthers against themselves and other radicals.

As they go about correcting what they perceive as misimpressions that minimize the Panthers’ significance and sully their character, Bloom and Martin accuse several historians of having “effectively advanced J. Edgar Hoover’s program of vilifying the Party and shrouding its politics.” These detractors “omit and obscure the thousands of people who dedicated their lives to the Panther revolution, their reasons for doing so, and the political dynamics of their participation, their actions, and the consequences.”

But Bloom and Martin’s effort to rehabilitate the Panthers’ reputation founders on tendentious advocacy. Read again their description of the confrontation at the Ramparts office. It wholly indulges the Panthers’ portrayal of what transpired. In another depiction of Newton and Seale facing down Oakland cops, Bloom and Martin have Newton pushing a policeman out of a parked car, leaping out of the vehicle with shotgun in hand, and shouting, “Now, who in the hell do you think you are, you big rednecked bastard, you rotten fascist swine, you bigoted racist? . . . Go for your gun and you’re a dead pig.”

This reads like a script from a Melvin Van Peebles film—in other words, a fantasy in which Newton is the swashbuckling hero who mouths all of the baddest lines. But how do Bloom and Martin know that Newton whipped the cop and then called him a “rednecked bastard”? “The description of the event,” they declare in their endnotes, “comes from Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton . . . and from Joshua Bloom’s tour of the site of the incident with Bobby Seale.” Seale’s memoir is certainly a pertinent source, but one that a responsible historian would handle skeptically, on guard for bias and inaccuracy. It must be corroborated before its claims can be represented as fact.

Bloom and Martin, however, make little effort to look beneath the swaggering veneer of Panther reminiscences. In Reviews in American History, historian Jama Lazerow notes that, in Black Against Empire, “It is not clear just what constitutes historical proof.” Writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Héctor Tobar observes that Bloom and Martin’s “most dramatic failing” is “their lack of critical distance from their subjects. . . . Many passages read as if they were written in the pages of the Panthers’ official publication, ‘The Black Panther,’ circa 1970.”

Bloom and Martin also produce little evidence or sustained argument to support their assertions of the Panthers’ significance. Here is a characteristic formulation: “For a few years, the Party seized the political imagination of a large constituency of young black people.” What do they mean by “large”? Thirty percent of black people between the ages of eighteen and fifty in the late ’60s or early ’70s? Forty percent? They don’t say.

They further maintain that by 1970 “what was once a scrappy local organization was now a major international political force, constantly in the news, with chapters in almost every major city.” It is true that the Panthers were “constantly in the news.” But was that media presence an accurate reflection of their activity and influence, or a reflection of journalists’ hunger for the sensational (albeit marginal)? Perhaps both, but Bloom and Martin fail to examine the matter carefully.

At one point, they do attempt to inject some quantitative specificity into their narrative. By 1970, they write, the Panthers “had opened offices in sixty-eight cities,” that “the Party’s annual budget reached about $1.2 million (in 1970 dollars),” and that the “circulation of the Party’s newspaper . . . reached 150,000.”

While this is an improvement over vague adjectives (“large,” “major”), Bloom and Martin never subject their evidence to rigorous analysis. The Panthers may have opened sixty-eight offices, but what constituted an office? A post office box, two conveners, and a casual nod from party authorities in Oakland? Bloom and Martin don’t say. This proliferation of offices may signal far less than they imply. As for the $1.2 million budget, that figure would be more meaningful if compared to the budgets of, say, the SCLC, NAACP, and other black defense and uplift organizations. Sociologist Herbert Haines generated useful insights by pursuing such comparisons in Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954–1970 (1988). He found that the NAACP and kindred organizations were even more attractive to donors thanks to militant activism: “moderate groups . . . profited immensely from the pressure created by more radical groups and rebellious ghetto-dwellers.” In light of Haines’s research, one might investigate whether the Panthers exerted a notable influence as a threat even when their own activity was negligible. Yet here, as elsewhere, Bloom and Martin fail to pursue potentially fruitful inquiries. As Fabio Rojas writes acidly in The American Historical ReviewBlack Against Empire “shies away from the most important question about the Black Panther Party.”

Bloom and Martin rightly criticize writings that tendentiously assail the Panthers, pay little heed to the inequities they sought to remedy, the repression they faced, and the benefits they bestowed. Bloom and Martin especially loathe the work of David Horowitz, a leftist who became a conservative in part out of disgust with the party. They also cite The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America (1994), by Hugh Pearson, who was, when he authored that book, an editorial writer for the Wall Street JournalThe Shadow of the Panther chronicles a long and lurid list of legal and moral crimes, including extortion, drug trafficking, and murder. To Bloom and Martin, Horowitz and Pearson are simply continuing Hoover’s vilification of the Panthers.

Detractors, however, would be hard pressed to sow more suspicion than Bloom and Martin themselves do. They write, for example, that Newton’s “street knowledge helped put him through college, as he covered his bills through theft and fraud.” Nothing is said about what Newton did, the identities of those hurt, or the extent of their losses. Far from criticizing Newton, Bloom and Martin leaven their description with a hint of esteem, noting, “When Newton was caught, he used his book knowledge to study the law and defend himself in court, impressing the jury and defeating several misdemeanor charges.” Later, Bloom and Martin consign the killing of Frey, a key event in the history of the Panthers, to obscurity. “There are conflicting accounts of what happened,” they say, but they do not describe those accounts and thus leave readers without guidance as to which ought to be believed and why.

Bloom and Martin mention that Newton fled to Cuba after being indicted in 1974 for killing a seventeen-year-old prostitute and beating a man. But again they forgo exploring the circumstances surrounding these allegations, insinuating that the charges were meant to demonize Newton and the Panthers. On the other hand, they concede, albeit grudgingly, there is reason to believe that “for much of the 1970s, Newton ruled the Party through force and fear and began behaving like a strung-out gangster.”

If Bloom and Martin refer to Newton as a gangster, his misdoings must have been awful indeed, for they hold to a minimum any information or conclusions that reflect badly on the Panthers. They relegate to a mere clause in a sentence the sensational fact that in 1973 Newton expelled Seale from the party. Excessively condensed, as well, is their rendition of the sad story of Newton’s end. With conspicuous terseness, they note simply that on August 23, 1989, he was killed by “a petty crack dealer from whom he was likely trying to steal drugs.”

• • •

In assessing Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton it is important to keep in mind that they tried to act against the racial injustice that has befouled America. That alone entitles them to some respect. It is important to acknowledge, too, the profound obstacles they encountered within and outside black communities. At this moment when civil liberties are threatened by new, disturbingly powerful surveillance technologies, we must remember that the self-destructive paranoia and divisiveness that menaced black power leaders stemmed in large part from the devious and illicit machinations of Hoover and other enforcers of law and order.

It is also important to acknowledge that Carmichael was only twenty-five when he shouted “black power!” and that Newton was only twenty-four when, with Seale, he founded the Panthers. It should come as no surprise that young people sometimes display bad judgment in confronting daunting conditions. Without a sympathetic appreciation of peoples’ problems, internal and external, there is no realistic way to take stock of their accomplishments and defeats.

But this does not lessen the responsibility of scholars to be exacting, especially when they self-consciously pursue their studies in order to advance social change, as the progressive revisionists of black power do. The art of social transformation is demanding. Those who portray the past for instruction and inspiration must not shrink before its imperatives, lest today’s activists learn the wrong lessons.

Randall L. Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School and author, most recently, of For Discrimination.


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